Der Philosoph Georg Simmel
Internationale Konferenz an der Bergischen Universität Wuppertal, 25-27 September 2018
Georg Simmel is one of those thinkers whose intellectual activity cannot be confined to a single disciplinary field. His interests, which touched upon numerous areas of knowledge, allowed him to make multiple contributions to the development of the human sciences of the twentieth century. His vast influence on the younger generations of philosophers, his penetrating analyses of society, and his peculiar style of writing made him a classic of contemporary thought. On the occasion of the centenary of his death, an international conference was organised in Wuppertal by Gerald Hartung (Professor of Cultural Philosophy and Aesthetics), Heike Koenig and Tim-Florian Goslar (Research Associates).
In the opening speech, Hartung clarified that the main aim of the convention was to «(re)discover the philosopher Georg Simmel beyond the many research areas and disciplinary identities which he was attributed». These words dismiss the trend towards specialisation that prevails among the current studies on Simmel. Because of such trend, Hartung noted, Simmel’s thought has been fragmented in single facets (e.g. his sociology, aesthetics, ethics), which are studied separately as if Simmel’s theoretical interests were incompatible with each other. In contrast, the speakers were asked to adopt an interdisciplinary approach and consider if – and in which terms – it is possible to talk about Simmel’s systematic legacy. Thus, the conference brought together scholars from various geographical and disciplinary backgrounds, who offered different perspectives to shed light on the overall significance of his work.
Many speakers underlined Simmel’s confrontation with the contradictions intrinsic to modern culture. For instance, Hartung pointed out that Simmel assigned to philosophy the task to address the main tension of modernity – namely the tension between individual and universal, i.e. between the subjective need of giving meaning to one’s own existence and the impersonal objectivity of socio-cultural institutions. Along the same lines, Denis Thouard (CNRS-Paris) investigated «Simmel’s philosophical intention», and suggested that Simmel primarily aimed at renewing contemporary philosophy. In Simmel’s view, German academic philosophers had become unable to cope with the problem of modern life. According to Thouard, Simmel followed two directions in his effort towards renewal: first, he criticised the academic language for being too abstract and restrictive, and instead, promoted a heuristic use of analogies; second, he adopted a relativistic point of view as a more suitable perspective to face the complexity of societies at the turn of the century.
Following Thouard’s contribution, questions were raised on how Simmel’s relativism should be interpreted, particularly as regards its ethical consequences. According to Georg Lohmann (University of Magdeburg), Simmel’s radical individualism is inevitably incompatible with moral philosophy. On the other hand, Gregor Fitzi (University of Potsdam) and Austin Harrington (University of Leeds) argued that Simmel’s social theory entails an ambitious redefinition of personal responsibility in an ethical framework grounded on the «individual law» [individuelles Gesetz] instead of dogmatic impositions. While the contributions of Lohmann, Fitzi and Harrington focused on the social and ethical implications of Simmel’s relativism, Johannes Steizinger (University of Vienna) investigated its epistemological meaning. According to Steizinger, Simmel’s relativistic position was a consistent response to the value crisis perceived in the late nineteenth century’s philosophy: in contrast with conservative solutions to this crisis (e.g. Windelband’s construction of a system of absolute values), Simmel tried to show how our communal understanding of the world and of society relies on historically originated and culturally limited values. History and culture are the main forces that shape our experience, and—as Tim-Florian Goslar (University of Wuppertal) noted—Simmel consistently explored their meaning through a transcendental investigation. In this respect Simmel was inspired by Kant, although his notion of historical apriori exceeded the Kantian system.
In his paper Goslar also suggested that Simmel’s effort to investigate history and culture is what granted thematic unity to his work. Likewise, in order to appreciate Simmel’s unitary intent, other contributions focused on his appeal to a «philosophical culture» [philosophische Kultur]. Elizabeth Goodstein (Emory College, Atlanta) identified this concept as a form of interdisciplinarity which does not imply competition between different sets of knowledge, but aims at their cooperation under the guidance of philosophy. Heike Koenig (University of Wuppertal) stressed the relevance of Simmel’s philosophical culture for pedagogy: Simmel considered culture as a unitary picture enriched by multiple perspectives, and presented it as an instrument to reinforce our personal identity despite the societal fragmentation. Antonio Calcagno (King’s University College, London – Canada) similarly delved into Simmel’s concept of personal identity. By comparing Simmel’s view on this topic with social theories of the early phenomenological school (in particular with Edith Stein’s), Calcagno tried to show how Simmel’s account of the self as a dynamic and «unfinished» entity offers a more convincing explanation of the relation between the individual and society.
A last group of contributions shed light on some ways that Simmel influenced European philosophy and human sciences. Gérard Raulet (University of Paris-Sorbonne) reconstructed Walter Benjamin’s reading of Simmel’s concept of «Nervosität» as characteristic of modern cities. Nicole C. Karafyllis (University of Braunschweig), instead, started by pointing out that Simmel’s troubled academic career prevented him from creating a stable circle of disciples. But despite this fact—Karafyllis claimed—Simmel’s notoriety extended beyond the classrooms to wider intellectual circles. This allowed Karafyllis to identify Simmel’s influence in the work of the sociologist Hermann Schmalenbach and the pedagogue Willy Moog, although they never actually studied under Simmel’s tutorship. Olivier Agard (University of Paris-Sorbonne) examined the early reception of Simmel in France both in philosophy and sociology, and showed that the relationship between Simmel and French intellectuals, such as Émile Durkheim and Henri Bergson, was one of mutual influence.
The primary outcome of the conference was the reassessment of Simmel’s relevance both for a historical perspective and for present-day philosophy. On this basis, Hartung suggested that the end of the convention should be seen more as the starting point of a communal research program, rather than as its conclusion.
The papers that were presented during the conference—not all of which were included in this report—will be published in the Fall 2019 issue of the series Kulturphilosophische Studien by the Karl Alber Verlag (Freiburg).
Report by: Andrea Mina (PhD Student in Philosophy at the FINO Consortium, Italy)